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A take-anywhere one light make-shift studio

A make-shift studio, using either flash or LED lights, makes for a great, take anywhere solution to photograph actors backstage. Here are some examples you may want to check.

I’ve photographed my share of theatrical plays and historical reenactments both outside and indoors, but in recent years I’ve chosen to work backstage, when possible, with an easy to set up make-shift studio, using either flash or LED lights. Here are some field notes you may find interesting for your own experiences.

Looking back to the last 30 years or so, I discover that I’ve photographed, professionally or for pure pleasure, everything from historical reenactments, or classic theatre to classical music productions. In fact, I photographed some of the most popular classical music performers back in the 1980s, sometimes under very stringent rules, this at a time when the mechanical noise of film cameras would cause disruption, and flash was not allowed during performances.

Sometimes, I wonder how performers cope, these days, with the public that snaps away with the cameras from their smartphones, their tiny neon flashes or lights (for video) destroying any sense of the ambiance. I know I suffer with it, so much, in fact, that I stopped photographing the public performances at the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas, an institution with whom I’ve worked for some years, photographing everything from exhibit artifacts to the annual Classical Theater festival there, as well as other cultural events.

Friday 13th and Night of the Witches

Historical reenactments centred on the Roman period and the 17th century, both connected to the museum’s exhibits and History, were some of the first events photographed, more than a decade ago. More recently, as the Museum went on to celebrate Halloween – or the European tradition behind it – and all the Friday 13th happening each year, I extended my coverage of their performances,  meaning I got the chance to photograph even more events throughout the year.

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For some years now, I’ve photographed the museum’s Night of the Witches, which in this case serves to connect the roots of Halloween with the objects exhibited at the museum, and rituals of death in the Iberian Peninsula since Prehistoric times through the Roman period.  That’s a subject that interests me, so I accepted to participate in the project and photograph them all dressed up for the show.

Well aware of the lost battle it is to try and photograph during the event, where the public will use their tiny flashes and lights to get snaps, I’ve arranged with the museum to set up a small studio to photograph the actors, which are in fact the people working at the museum, transformed, after a day’s work, in the characters creating each event. These backstage sessions have become an exciting experience that not only tells the story behind each session but also tells a continued story of the “actors” evolving in the creation of characters, and the flow of time in the life of a museum and the persons who contribute to make it what it is. In that sense, this is a very rewarding experience for all involved, in which I am grateful I’ve had the chance to participate.

The backstage portable studio

Photographing in a controlled set has also allowed for two things: on the technical aspect related to photography, to explore the use of different types of light, both LED and flash, at different times; on the theatrical side, to try new things, along with the evolution of the part-time non-professional actors that make it possible to create these events. It’s been a fantastic ride, believe me.

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The subject of lighting deserves some consideration, and a few paragraphs, as I believe readers here at Manfrotto School of Xcellence may use the information for their own tests. Independently of the use of flash or LED panels, I always start to check my lighting use a stepladder as a test subject, which I place where the actors will be standing for the session. The session is held at the museum’s library, where we have space to keep the studio up for a few hours, and is possible to control the existing lighting, so as not to interfere with the LED panels or flash. For the session, most of the library lights are turned off.

The make-shift studio, which consists of mostly one, sometimes two LED panels or a flash, and eventually, a reflector can be carried anywhere. It consists of two light stands – I use the Manfrotto 5001B Nano Black Light Stand, which are compact and lightweight, and great support for either LED panels, flash, or a large reflector. In terms of LED panels my regular light at the moment is the Manfrotto LED Light LYKOS Bicolour, supplemented with a LED Light SPECTRA2, or other SPECTRA panels, if needed.

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Trying to work with a limited amount of light is part of the challenge, and because I am mostly photographing small groups or individual shots, although I will sometimes do a family portrait, it works well enough for me. There are some constraints when you don’t have much light – or don’t want to use it, to keep things simple, as is the case – but I can live with that, also because these sessions are, sometimes, shared with people I take backstage with me, to show them how they can get some good images with a few lights.

LED panels for groups of photographers

For a recent session at the museum and because I had a group of some six people, I mounted two blocks of small portable LED panels, and challenged participants to photograph with those. In fact, I gave them more than I’ve used myself in some occasions, as I’ve worked with a single light and, sometimes, a reflector. Working with LED panels has some advantages, mainly  that you see your subject all the time, as with continuous studio lights, but because the number of LED panels is not what a regular studio would use, you’ve to consider raising your ISO and using wide apertures and slow shutter speeds.

If you ask your subjects to move, because you want to show some action in your photos, you may find that images will be blurred, lack definition and, if you raised ISO, show some noise, depending on how well your camera deals with less than the ideal quantity of light. Still, it is possible to come out with good photographs, if you understand the challenges you face and work around them.

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Some of the photographs published here were shot with LED panels or one LED panel, with a reflector introduced on the opposite side. They confirm my statement and point to a solution that you may want to try yourself. The photographers I tool with me for a recent session loved the experience, which was completely new to them.

Another advantage of LED panels that should be mentioned is that with them different photographers can photograph the same subject simultaneously, whereas with small portable strobes in a make-shift studio, sharing your lighting is not an option. For Halloween, though, I decided to use flash, as I was going to have the studio all for myself.

Flash as an option, if you’re working alone

Flash introduces some problems, as you don’t see your subject as clearly as with LED panels – or your camera’s AF doesn’t… – but this can be partially solved with a small light (a LED panel works) pointing at your subject, to help with focus, because when you press the shutter only the flash light will be registered. In fact, with flash it is possible to work at maximum sync speed and with apertures that give you some extra depth of field.

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When using flash – with a radio trigger –  I tend to set the sensor sensitivity up to 400 ISO, which still gives me noiseless images, and allows me to lower the flash output, for faster recycling, which is important, and to get more flashes out of each charge. Flash also allows for more control of the relation between the subject and background, although most of the times it really is a pitch black background what I am aiming for.

Flash may fail, sometimes, something that never happens to LED panels if everything is working properly, so there are advantages and disadvantages to each system, as I mentioned earlier. From my experience, both systems work well, once you understand their limitations and advantages. I enjoy working with both, and being able to pick one or the other as I want and still get results that make people happy, makes the idea of this make-shift studio, which fits in a small bag, a great solution that you may want to try yourself. My photographs demonstrate what can be achieved, and this is a continued exploration of what can be created with a simple set up and some patience.

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A final note on group portraits

For this article I also picked two photographs that depict the “family portrait” idea, although they result from different approaches. One is the classical shot, with the whole group photographed with a single flash on the left, while the other, used as a opening image for the article, is a composite image from something I am exploring and which deserves an explanation.

The second group image is created by photographing participants alone or in small groups – as for logistic reasons it is hard to get them all at once for the “family portrait” – and creating a composite in Affinity Photo.  The image used here is a test image and points to a direction I want to go in future sessions. It also introduces something that you can already see in other photos published here and that I want explore: interaction between different actors. This new step reflects the evolution of the work done with the group, revealing that for the same subject it is possible to explore new approaches for a body of work. Most of it created with a single light source in a make-shift studio.

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